Can a Toxic Boss Really Ever Change? Here’s How to Tell

How to read the signs, manage the damage, and steer clear of negativity in the workplace.

Ken’s manager, Inga, a CPO, was, for all intents and purposes, a tyrant. She regularly snapped at Ken, and often publicly humiliated and insulted him and other staff in his team. She was incredibly rude via email, and even threatened Ken a few times. Ken found it completely and utterly soul-destroying working for her, and planned to quit. But every time he went to do just that, a strange thing happened. 

Magically, when Ken was just about at the end of his tether, Inga became charming, helpful and generous. Sometimes she would buy Ken and the team members expensive and very personal gifts, such as engraved watches and expensive champagne. Sometimes, she would even negotiate an out-of-cycle pay rise. And whenever charming Inga appeared, Ken felt like he should forgive and forget. She was a toxic boss (and likely, a narcissist), but maybe she could change? 

Or maybe she couldn’t. All of us have had unpleasant experiences with our managers, from experiencing moodiness to being downright bullied. And given that our managers are one of the most essential enablers of our careers, it can be career-ruining if we continue to work for the wrong one. 

Saying that though, everyone is entitled to their bad days (or weeks or months, sometimes). Managing people can be downright challenging, and given how difficult it can often be to find a new role, one shouldn’t give up on their manager unless they’re sure that they really are a lemon. That being said, here are the signs that your boss is toxic – and won’t change: 

1. Your boss’s bad behaviour is unexplainable – and consistent 

In an organisation, being an individual contributor in procurement is relatively uncomplicated (even though it may not feel that way!). You’ve got your work to do and you do it, albeit with a few stakeholders along the way. 

But being a manager is a whole different cup of tea. Suddenly, you not only have your own work, but many other people’s work (and emotions, personal lives and business relationships) to deal with. You also likely have an executive team with serious expectations to manage. 

As a result, being a manager can be a tough gig, and there will likely be days (or even more than days) that your manager seems upset, frustrated, angry or just over it. However, they really shouldn’t be taking this out on you. If you’ve noticed some less-than-professional behaviour from your manager, try to meet with them and explain what you’ve noticed and how it makes you feel. If they acknowledge it and endeavour to not do it again, then they’re not a bad boss, they’re simply having a bad time. However, if they deny it, or there are no other outside factors which explain it, and then it continues, you could have yourself an eternally toxic boss. 

2. Your boss sometimes does nice things to repent for the bad things – but only publicly 

Remember Ken above? Inga did just enough nice things for him to convince him to stay. So does that make her toxic? It sure does. 

Research into so-called ‘toxic bosses’ shows that managers who are truly toxic are also very skilled at understanding when they need to turn the behaviour around. Beyond this, though, these ‘nice gestures’ are often just a guise to save face publicly, especially if there have been complaints against them. Researchers call this being ‘fake nice’ and if an employee capitulates and forgives their behaviour (and there are no consequences), the cycle of abuse is likely to continue. 

3. You have more negative interactions with your boss than positive ones 

Did you know that one of the warning signs psychologists use to predict divorce is the ratio of positive interactions in a relationship vis-a-vis negative ones? If that is the formula for divorce, it’s definitely worth considering in your own relationship with your boss. 

Toxic bosses, much like toxic spouses, sprout negativity far more than they do positivity. But just like ending any relationship, ensure you monitor your manager’s behaviour over time (over months, ideally).

If the number of times they make you feel bad far outweighs the number of times they make you feel good, it’s a sign they are definitely toxic. 

4. Your organisation does nothing 

Let’s think back to Inga for a minute. Was she really to blame for her bad behaviour, or was it more the fault of the organisation for doing nothing? As you are no doubt aware, the sum total of our behaviours, values and ideals in the workplace form the culture. So if you suspect you have a toxic boss, your bigger problem may be the fact that your organisation allows – or even unwittingly encourages – this type of behaviour. 

Research shows that toxic bosses in fact thrive in organisations where abusive or hostile behaviour is not just condoned, but encouraged. And even if your toxic boss can change, he or she definitely won’t if certain behaviours are allowed (or even look favourably upon). 

Take a look at your boss’s boss and your peers. Are toxic behaviours everywhere? If so, the thing that needs to change is your place of employment. 

What would you recommend for people who have a toxic boss? Are you seeking a better relationship with your own boss? Have a read of this